Friday, June 26, 2015

Montenegro 2 - The Longest Day

There are two days on which I try consistently each year to spend a whole day birding. The first is New Year's Day. The other, if I'm North of the Tropic of Cancer, is 21 June - Midsummer's Day. I'm not obsessive or anything and am not going to go out into a blizzard or a thunderstorm just because the calendar says so; a day or two after 1 January will do, and any day a week either side of Midsummer's day is also fine. But those are the target dates.

The challenge on 1 January is to kick off the New Year in style and ideally to see something juicily rare to set the tone for the coming twelve months. It's a sprint - an effort to cram as many species as possible into a short space of time. Midsummer is different - very different. For a start you've simply got to stay awake and alert for the whole day which, if you structure it the way I did this year, is no mean challenge and means basically setting yourself up for a 19 hour day. But the second element is more subtle. Unless you're very far north in Europe or North America, the second half of June is already becoming a challenging season for birding; many species will have toned down or entirely stopped singing; most trees are in full leaf, making species much harder to see; and then there's the potential problem of heat, which makes birds, and humans for that matter, more torpid and messes with your optics. So, if the New Year's day birdwatch is a sprint, Midsummer is a marathon.

I started my marathon on 22 June at 0300 and was out of the house by 0330. This is excessive, even by the standards of midsummer birding, but I had to drive most of the length of the Montenegrin coastline in order to be in Ulcinj at dawn. Ulcinj is home to the jewel in the crown of CZIP's conservation efforts, and its greatest ongoing success - the preservation of the Ulcinjska Salina (Ulcinj Saltworks) as a going concern with an emphasis on conservation. The Salina is vast. I've been twice now and have barely covered a third of it. Access is by appointment only, and you must take a guide with you. The access costs 5 Euro and the guide costs 20 Euro, and it's a bargain, not least because you're making an infinitesimal contribution to keeping by far the largest wetland on this stretch of the Adriatic coast available for migrating and breeding birds into the future. If you're visiting Montenegro, this is a must-visit location and my best advice is to contact the guide who showed me around, Azra Mujic, on +382 68 64 07 47. If she's not available she can put you in touch with another of the guides for the site.

The view across some of the smaller settlement ponds at Ulcinj. If you're able to magnify this photo there are nesting Collared Pratincoles in the centre of the frame. Alas I forgot to check my camera battery, and it was dead, so for the whole day I was dependent on my phone

I met Azra just after 0500 and we were inside the Salina within a few minutes. The first part of the walk inside the works was disappointing and difficult as we were walking directly into the rising sun, but as we reached the larger settlement ponds deeper inside the works I remembered why I was here; a Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus) ran furtively across one of the dried-out ponds, a Roller (Caracias garrulus - one half of around 8 pairs at the site) flew past hawking for insects, and then the first of at least 150 Collared Pratincoles (Glareola pratincola) appeared on the ground, followed by Kentish Plovers (Charadrius alexandrinus), Black-winged Stilts (Himantopus himantopus) and Little Terns (Sternula albifrons). In the distance a flock of around 200 Greater Flamingoes (Phoenicopterus roseus), and a single Dalmatian Pelican (Pelicanus crispus), squatting hugely like a boulder emerging from the water. A late, lonely Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola) was flushed from a drainage channel, and the stunning, black-headed, short-tailed feldegg race of Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) flitted among the halophilic grasses. On a small bridge a tiny colony of Spanish Sparrows (Passer hispaniolensis) - my first in Montenegro, but my second of this trip after the unexpected and lively colony at Dubrovnik Airport in Croatia.

This photo gives a sense of the sheer size of this fantastic site. It basically stretches to the foot of the hills in the distance.

I spent around four hours here with Azra and added Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) and a very unexpected Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) as the day wore on, but by 0930 it was time to move on. I had intended to visit Sasko Lake nearby, but a fuel crisis brought me back to Ulcinj and was followed by indecision. I had thought to stop at Petrovac and/or Buljarica, back up the coast, to look for the Eleonora's Falcons (Falco eleonorae) and Olive-tree Warblers (Hippolais olivetorum) that are reported to frequent the area, but laziness and the lure of the familiar got the better of me and I turned off towards Skadar Lake through the Sozina tunnel before reaching Petrovac.

Greater Flamingoes in flight at Ulcinj

Skadar Lake is a large, karstic, eutrophic lake lying between the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, and the sea. It's shared with Albania on the Eastern side and is renowned as a major wildfowl refuge in the winter, with tens of thousands of Coots (Fulica atra) staying there regularly, for instance. At this time of year there were a few species I hoped to see, based on past experience - Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea), Penduline Tit (Remiz pendulinus), Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca), Lesser Grey Shrike (Lanius minor), Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) etc. But in some respects the birds here take second place to the scenery, which is breathtaking.

The beginnings of Lake Skadar seen from the road towards Rijeka Crnovejica. Just stunning.

As a reed-fringed, eutrophic lake, it's not easy to get close to lake Skadar, and I've always found the best place is a little bit past the "Jezero" restaurant (which is also home to the information centre for Skadar Lake National Park). If you're travelling from Virpazar towards Podgorica, you pass the restaurant and the tiny village of Bistrice and then take the second turning to the right, which is a gravel road which runs along a wet reedbed, fringed with willows, and ends up on the banks of the Moraca river before it debouches into the lake.

I trundled slowly down this road adding Eastern Olivaceous Warblers (Hippolais pallida) and Golden Orioles (Oriolus oriolus) to my day list. At the end I parked the car and walked up the Moraca on the small track there, which affords views back across the reedbeds - a Purple Heron flew overhead and Whiskered Terns (Chlidonias hybrida) were, as I knew they would be, two a penny. But it was now almost midday and no birds were singing. It was hard to see anything and harder still to concentrate. This I think would be a good place to end the day, but it wasn't a good one to spend the middle of it.

I headed up the spectacular, but slow, old road to Rijeka Crnojevica and from there via Cetinje, the old royal capital of Montenegro, to Lovcen National Park. The first part of this road is winding and slow even by Montenegrin standards, but the scenery is mind-bogglingly beautiful, and there are occasional forests which are worth dipping into (again, perhaps later in the day than I had chosen to be there). I added a few common species and several Eastern Black-eared Wheatears (Oenanthe hispanica melanoleuca) during this drive, but, surprisingly, the only birds of prey were a couple of Honey Buzzards (Pernis apivorus) near the village of Cukvica and a single Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) just outside Cetinje. Montenegro is, as for many other birds, much better for birds of prey in the Spring when there is a clear passage up the Adriatic coast of birds which apparently have crossed the straits of Otranto from Italy.

The heaving metropolis of Cetinje, the old royal capital of Montenegro. Yes, that's all of it.

Lovcen was my final spot before heading home. It's a vast limestone massif and plateau full of hidden glades and copses, and I've always thought that it should be better for birding then I've ever actually found it to be, which is probably only owing to insufficient local knowledge on my part. In any case its a stunning place to spend any part of any fine day, and a wonderful escape from the heat of the coast in the summer. I elected this time to drive most of the way towards the highest peak, which is crowned by an ugly, communist era radio and meteorological tower (a lower peak is more atmospherically topped by a mausoleum to the legendary Montenegrin king Peter II Petrovic "Njegos", who was born nearby in the village of Njegusi). The views from up here defy belief - all the way down to the knotted coastline of the Kotor/Risan Bay in one direction, and down to Skadar Lake in the other, with the distant, looming, Durmitor massif to the North-East. But there were very few birds. I'd hoped to cheat my way to a Rock Partridge (Aletoris graeca) or a Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush (Monticola saxatilis), but no dice; a couple of Linnets (Carduelis cannabina), a lovely male Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) and a Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia) were my only reward.

A poor photo of a great view. Looking down towards Tivat and the Lustica Peninsula from the top of Lovcen.

Or so it seemed. As time ticked by I headed back towards the old road I'd taken a few days before, which descends towards Troijica and thence down to Radanovici. Turning one of countless corners whilst still high on the mountain, I found myself looking at a huge bird of prey, hanging in the wind where the draft from the deep bay of Kotor is channeled up the rock-face. I grabbed my binoculars from the neighbouring seat; a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), and an adult to boot, its shaggy mane visible in the lowering light. It banked right, and without a movement of its wings, disappeared out of sight behind the ridge.

In total I spent 19 hours awake and birding this day and was rewarded with 77 species of bird, 2 mammals and a single identifiable reptile species. It's not the list I had hoped for, and there were 14 species of bird I saw on this trip to Montenegro that I didn't see on this day, but it contains some wonderful birds - that Golden Eagle, for instance. If I had the chance again, I'd certainly stay in Ulcinj the night before, so that I didn't have to get up so early, and I'd probably aim to end the day at Skadar Lake and sleep somewhere near there. I'd also definitely stop at Petrovac next time - the detour is probably worthwhile and I haven't seen an Eleonora's Falcon for years, nor have I ever seen an Olive-tree Warbler. One final change I'd make? Do it with somebody else. 19 hours is a long time for any activity, let alone a solitary one.

As always, it's as interesting to note what I didn't see as what I did; no Ravens (Corvus corax), for instance, and no Blue Tits (Parus caeruleus), though both are common enough in Montenegro. Overall, as always at this time of year, it was disappointing for raptors. No doubt I should have heard/seen at least some owls, but they're a very weak spot in my birding and I'm not surprised I missed them all. I've regularly seen Ferruginous Ducks at Skadar Lake, so I was surprised not to see them. And where the hell, to reiterate my question of yesterday's blog, are all the Orphean Warblers (Sylvia hortensis)? And all the Dabchicks (Tachybaptus ruficollis), for that matter?

The full day list follows, and I'll try to add a map of the routes and locations once my older son is here to help me with the technology...

  1. Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)
  2. Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
  3. Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)
  4. Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus)
  5. Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)
  6. Pygmy Cormorant (Microcarbo pygmaeus)
  7. Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides)
  8. Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)
  9. Great White Egret (Ardea alba)
  10. Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
  11. Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea)
  12. Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)
  13. Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
  14. Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)
  15. Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)
  16. Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus)
  17. Moorhen (Gallimula chloropus)
  18. Coot (Fulica atra)
  19. Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)
  20. Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus)
  21. Collared Pratincole (Glareola pratincola)
  22. Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus)
  23. Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola)
  24. Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)
  25. Redshank (Tringa totanus)
  26. Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)
  27. Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus)
  28. Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)
  29. Little Tern (Sternula albifrons)
  30. Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)
  31. Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia
  32. Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrida)
  33. Rock Dove (Columba livia) - there are apparently "pure" birds on Lovcen
  34. Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocta)
  35. Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur)
  36. Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)- heard only
  37. Nightjar (Caprimulgus europeaus)
  38. Swift (Apus apus)
  39. Alpine Swift (Tachymorptis melba)
  40. Hoopoe (Upupa epops)
  41. Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)
  42. Roller (Caracias garrulus)
  43. Crested Lark (Galerida cristata)
  44. Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
  45. Red-rumped Swallow (Hirundo daurica)
  46. House Martin (Delichon urbicum)
  47. White Wagtail (Motacilla alba)
  48. (Black-headed) Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava feldegg)
  49. Robin (Erythacus rubecula) - heard only
  50. Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) - heard only
  51. Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)
  52. Eastern Black-eared Wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica melanoleuca)
  53. Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)
  54. Blackbird (Turdus merula)
  55. Whitethroat (Sylvia communis)
  56. Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans)
  57. Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti) - heard only
  58. Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus)
  59. Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (Hippolais pallida)
  60. Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) - heard only
  61. Great Tit (Parus major)
  62. Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)
  63. Magpie (Pica pica)
  64. Jay (Garrulus glandarius)
  65. Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)
  66. Yellow-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)
  67. Hooded Crow (Corvus corone cornix)
  68. Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
  69. Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus)
  70. House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
  71. Spanish Sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis)
  72. Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) - heard only
  73. Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)
  74. Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
  75. Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)
  76. Corn Bunting (Miliaria calandra)
  77. Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia)

  1. Golden Jackal (Canis aureus) - one glimpsed near Ljesevici
  2. Northern White-breasted Hedgehog (Erinaceus roumanicus) - one on the road near Ljesevici

  1. Balkan Green Lizard (Lacerta trilineata) - one on the road near Crmica

Species seen/heard on this trip but not on this day:
  1. Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)
  2. Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
  3. Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus)
  4. Pallid Swift (Apus pallidus) - three seen between Ljesevici and Bigovo the morning after a large thunderstorm, along with many Swifts and one Alpine Swifts. These were my first Pallids for Montenegro, where, as far as I know, they do not breed.
  5. Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala)
  6. Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis)
  7. Wood Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) - heard only
  8. Western Rock-nuthatch (Sitta neumayer)
  9. Blue Rock-Thrush (Monticola solitarius)
  10. Sombre Tit (Parus lugubris)
  11. Raven (Corvus corax)
  12. Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) - surprisingly common here, as it is throughout the Balkans, in my experience. On this visit seen in Bigovo and behind the walls of Kotor.
  13. Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus)
  14. Black-headed Bunting (Emberiza melanocephala)

Not quite the end of a wearying day. I still had to wait a bit for my Nightjar.

Thursday, June 25, 2015


I lived briefly in Bulgaria in the early 1990s. I was trying to make a name for myself and was so absorbed by politics that I didn't even bother to take my binoculars with me when I went there, an omission that seems to me now to have been bordering on insane. Like Simon Barnes, the sports and birding writer, "the idea of travelling without binoculars seems to me absurd". Or at least it does now but, what can I say? I was young and foolish. The point is that I missed almost all the birding that has made Bulgaria one of the top nature tourism destinations in Europe, and I could have been in on it from the start.

By contrast I've been visiting Montenegro since 2006, and I doubt I've been there once without binoculars. My wife is Montenegrin, and we have a house there, so there's no question at all that I'm thoroughly biased - but I'm convinced that this tiny and stunning country has as much to the offer the birder as Bulgaria or any of the other Balkan countries now setting up their stalls in the ecotourism marketplace. To give an example, although we spend only a few weeks there every year, I've seen 91 species of bird, including 12 species of raptor, in and around the village where our house is, since 2009.

Birding tours are, slowly, taking off, and, thanks to the work of Darko Saveljic and his Centre for Protection and Research of Birds of Montenegro (CZIP) there are, increasingly, facilities and information for even the casual visiting birder. Better still, and far more importantly, there are now habitats under legal protection, where wildlife tourism is promoted. But that protection is tenuous and haphazardly implemented - hunting of migratory birds is depressingly common, for instance, even in protected areas - so the more birders who come and the more the interests of local communities therefore become aligned with conservation rather than rapacious development, the better protection is likely to be afforded to these precious remaining areas.

So, as it happens, I've just come back from ten days in Montenegro - days mainly of swimming and relaxing and working on the house - but naturally with some birding thrown in, including a full day on 22 June, which I think I'll try and write about separately. There's no doubt that the summer months, even including this period of June, are not the best, bird-wise, in this part of the world. Migration season - particularly the Spring migration, and particularly April - are much better and can throw up some fantastic species; I've seen five Pallid Harriers (Circus macrourus) over my house at that time of year, for instance.

The harbour in Bigovo, from the terrace of the "Grispolis" fish restaurant. Absolutely dreadful for birding, but there are rare times when you have to say, "who cares?"

But there are still some stunners to be found, and heard, even now. I arrived at our house in the late afternoon to be greeted by a cacophony of Nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos), Sardinian Warblers (Sylvia melanocephala), Eastern Olivaceous Warblers (Hippolais pallida), Subalpine Warblers (Sylvia cantillans), Cetti's Warblers (Cettia cetti), Blackbirds (Turdus merula), Turtle Doves (Streptopelia turtur) and Cirl Buntings (Emberiza cirlus). Later in the evening they were joined by Nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus) and often, though not on this visit, Golden Jackals (Canis aureus) howl like Wolves from the surrounding hills and Scops Owls (Otus scops) whistle mechanically from the scrub. None of these species is particularly easy to see here - the garrigue is thick, so this is a place to get to know your songs. Thanks to my newly-downloaded Collins Bird Guide App, that's easier than it used to be. It's the book, only better.

The scrubby woodland behind and around our house. Home to countless unseen warblers and chats.

On the following morning I headed to the Tivatska Solila - an old salt works near the pleasant town of Tivat now entirely abandoned in terms of the salt, but partly used as a sewage works. Much of the upper drainage of this area has been built on and this, coupled with constant disturbance by bait diggers on the seaward side, and, alas, frequent disturbance by hunters on the landward side in winter, means that the place can be hit and miss. I've had some amazing days here; a great flock of Glossy Ibises (Plegadis falcinellus) fronted by a migrating adult male Pallid Harrier; Common Cranes (Grus grus) beating their way into the face of a raging Bora (as the Tramontana wind is known here); Water Rails (Rallus aquaticus) lined up along a drainage ditch as if in a demonstration of vanishing point perspective by Alberti. But those days have mainly been in the winter and Spring. It was now, although not very hot, obviously summer and the day was definitely on the miss side as many are at this time of year; some patrolling Zitting Cisticolas (Cisticola juncidis), a few Corn Buntings (Miliaria calandra), a Pygmy Cormorant (Microcarbo pygmaeus) or two and a desultory few Great Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus arundinaceus). Not one to write home about.

Tivatska Solila - either heaving with birds or pretty much dead. 

As the heat set in I headed up the old road towards Njegusi on the top of the Lovcen Massif. This is one of the great drives of Europe - a series of switchbacks and hairpin bends from sea level to around 1000 metres or so up what to all intents and purposes is a largely sheer rock face. It's basically a single-track road and not for the faint of heart, but then the Montenegrin bus drivers manage to bring coaches up and down it, so maybe I just need to man-up a bit. I had headed up for the birds - Yellow-billed Choughs (Pyrrhocorax graculus) and House Martins (Delichon urbicum) that nest in a cave and zip in and out like bats - a vestige of what their nesting habits in Europe must have been like until a couple of thousand years ago - but I ended up staying for my first cevapi and kajmak of the year. These words will be meaningless to the uninitiated, but are music to the ears, and the tongues, of balkanophiles such as myself.

A thatched bothy in Lovcen National Park. It's not just the birds that should bring you here. The wild flowers are out of this world, and there's great herpetology for those with the eye for it.

Inspired by this the next day I took myself to Kotor. The city itself is stunning but tiny and can be explored and savoured in a comfortable hour, but after that, tempted as you may be by the impossibly vertiginous city walls, do not try to climb them from the inside. The secret, instead, is to take the path that begins behind the small water works just outside the walls. This is the true "Ladder of Cattaro", as it was known after the city's Venetian moniker, and again it winds all the way up to Njegusi. For much of the nineteenth century this was the only road linking the tiny independent Kingdom of Montenegro, centred on the Lovcen massif, with the coast which was then under the control of Austria-Hungary, and it was built for mule traffic. Mules are sturdy animals, of course, but not known for their enthusiasm or willingness to put themselves out. As a consequence, this track, now used only for walking, climbs the rock at a stately pace and angle. It's hard going merely because it's all uphill, but it's a good deal easier than the stairs inside the wall, it's free, and its much, much better for birding. It's a reliable place for a few Balkan specialities - Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius), Sombre Tit (Parus lugubris), Western Rock-Nuthatch (Sitta neumayer) and Eastern Black-eared Wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica melanoleuca) were all seen on this visit, for instance, and I've regularly seen Eastern Orphean Warblers (Sylvia hortensis crassirostris) in the past here too. Yellow-billed Choughs come all the way down to sea level here, particularly in the winter, but they're common enough at the level of the top of the walls even now. I've also heard reports of Rock Partridges (Alectoris graeca) from that altitude upwards, but not seen them myself. One secret of this site is to come early. It is increasingly popular with hikers - a phenomenon of the last year or two which is bound to increase, because it's freaking gorgeous - but more importantly you're shaded from the sun in the morning if you start early, and it's baking if you're too late.

The country around the ladder of Cattaro and the stunning views it affords. The old road, now a path, is visible in the foreground, and this photo gives a good indication of the comfortable angle it affords, making it a long, but easy walk up to Njegusi.

On the way back I stopped between the villages of Ljesevici and Bigovo. Last year I found a few pairs of nesting Black-headed Buntings (Emberiza melanocephala) up here, and sure enough there was at least one singing male there this time too. But neither here, nor in Bigovo, nor in Kotor - all places I saw the species last year - could I find a single Orphean Warbler. What's happened to them all?

The extensive Garrigue between Ljesevici and Bigovo. Home to the common Mediterranean species and to Black-headed Buntings.